Australia’s Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme initially allowed people from several Pacific nations to help Australian farmers with their harvests. This year it has been expanded, but extending it further to also allow Indonesian fishermen would provide a win-win solution for a big problem
Every year hundreds of Indonesian fishermen come to Australia’s northern waters. Of course, these are also Indonesia’s southern waters and the fishermen were coming here before the first fleet of European colonizers arrived. But that does not stop newspapers screaming about disease, drugs, terrorism, people trafficking and so on.
Fisheries officers also complain, legitimately, it seems, that this puts pressure on fish stocks.
At the same time, the Australian government spends millions of taxpayers’ dollars unsuccessfully trying to stop the fishermen. Up-to-date figures are hard to obtain, the most recent indication comes from 2006, when the Commonwealth had committed $390 million to the problem.
This includes $25 million on helicopters, $66 million on “processing centers,” and $19 million on mapping. A small part of these expenses are incurred by apprehending the fishermen, which according to Natasha Stacey in “Boats to Burn: Bajo Fishing Activity in the Australian Fishing Zone” includes the cost of prosecution, caretakers for detained crews, legal aid, jailing and repatriation. Australians are footing a $390 million bill, yet as Stacey notes, “Current Australian policies toward Indonesian fishermen are clearly inappropriate and ineffective.”
For Indonesian fishermen, coming down to Australia is no picnic. Often living in poverty, without basic infrastructure, and at the mercy of endemic diseases, many can’t afford to feed their kids properly, send them to school, or even to a good hospital. Again, up-to-date data are hard to find, but in 1994, after four weeks of work, the crewmen of an Indonesian fishing boat received just over Rp 400,000 — about A$8 (in those times) for a day’s work. Not many of us would risk life and limb on a small leaky boat for ten times that figure. Moreover, many of these fishermen are chronically indebted, so their take-home pay may have been significantly less. If there were better work opportunities, the fisherman would take them, but there aren’t. So he sails down to fish in Australian waters and risk losing his life if his leaky boat goes down in a storm. If he is lucky he returns to Indonesia slightly better than when he set off.
Current policies clearly aren’t working either for Indonesian fishermen or for Australia, so what about another solution?
One simple response might help us all: just allow people from Indonesian fishing villages to work in Australia. Currently, the government offers “457” visas for overseas skilled workers.
However, almost none of the fishermen have the qualifications required. The new Seasonal Worker Pilot Scheme is a better option. This allows people from Pacific Islands to work in the agricultural sector and the program could easily be extended to Eastern Indonesia, where the fishermen sail from. I suggest we provide the fishermen with similar strictly-supervised visas to do the manual and domestic work such as laundering, cleaning, child-minding, laboring, mining or picking fruit. This is work Australians need done, but either don’t want to do, don’t have time to do, or can’t afford to pay for. Through this solution, Australia could help the fishermen, and, at the same time, help itself.
For Australia, the benefits would be great. Special visas for fishermen would help get the economy ticking again. Fishermen would prefer to work legally in Australia so it could free up the money wasted on efforts to keep them out. It would also reduce pressure on Australia’s protected fish stocks. And if this resulted in Australian job losses in any one sector, then, by all means, we should not provide visas for work in that sector.
For Indonesians on this program, working in Australia would be far more lucrative and safer. The minimum hourly wage in Australia is equivalent to at least several days laboring in an Indonesian village. Children of fishermen could grow up healthier and with an education that would provide opportunities far more appealing than sailing to Australia.
Not only the pay, but the conditions would be far better than they could expect in Indonesia. Indonesians have assisted the economies of Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and other countries by working as foreign laborers, but are continually underpaid and mistreated.
Australian employers would be forced to treat Indonesian workers fairly or face the full force of the law.
Allowing Indonesian fishermen visas to work legally is more beneficial for Australians than trying to apprehend them in our northern waters. Indonesian fishermen are clearly willing to work hard, so Australia should give them a go.
Nicholas Herriman is a lecturer in anthropology at La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia.